Living with the Liberals

Living with the Liberals

There’s an easy way to pick a fight at Sarah Lawrence College: proclaim yourself a Republican. In 2007, over 85 percent of first-year students identified as either liberal or very liberal, while barely one percent called themselves conservative.

By all impressions the ratio among teachers is similarly lopsided, and at the big table in the faculty dining room—where colleagues gather for lunch, conversation, and debate—you’d have to listen long and hard to hear a conservative opinion. Sarah Lawrence is overwhelmingly pro-choice and pro-gay marriage, anti-war and anti-enhanced interrogation techniques. It may be true that, as former dean of the College Barbara Kaplan wrote in 2007, Sarah Lawrence emphasizes “individuals finding and defining roles and values that are appropriate to themselves—and often bucking convention,” but this self-definition takes place within a liberal framework that is itself seldom bucked.

How then does one explain history faculty member Jefferson Adams? He arrived at Sarah Lawrence in 1971, with a doctorate from Harvard and the quotidian liberal preoccupations, another registered Democrat entering the fold. Today he’s one of the College’s few genuinely conservative voices, a man who admires Ronald Reagan and quotes Margaret Thatcher (“The facts of life are conservative”). Yet Adams has thrived here, and when his new book, Historical Dictionary of German Intelligence (forthcoming from Roman & Littlefield) appears this fall, it will mark the culmination of his voyage from liberal-leaning German history scholar to conservative maven of international diplomacy and espionage. Yes, espionage. Adams is really into spies. And his story, despite its peculiarities, is at its heart quintessentially Sarah Lawrence, the story of finding a personal passion among the chaos of other voices.

Jefferson Adams is tall with wispy white hair, and he carries his years with the poise of an athlete (Adams swims every day, a ritual he takes seriously). “It’s true, I arrived as a very liberal thinker,” he says, remembering his early days at the College. “But the liberalism I encountered here seemed lazy. I didn’t think people had fully considered their own views.”

This impression may have been exacerbated by the tumultuous 1970s— a decade that challenged political assumptions on both sides of the aisle. Adams’ early years at the College were marked by the OPEC oil embargo, the social upheaval of the Vietnam War, welfare policies that threatened to create a permanent American underclass, and a tax-bracket strategy that (some argued) discouraged ambition and smacked of socialism. A conservative backlash was gathering, and Adams—surrounded by university liberalism (“Almost all of my colleagues were at that time leftists of one sort or another”)—found himself increasingly alienated. Later, in the mid-’80s, Adams would publish an award-winning article that identified the fault lines in East German state security, but he was already stunned by attitudes toward this Marxist work-in-progress. While most academics lauded East Germany as an ideological success story, he says, what Adams saw was “a starkly repressive regime.” Of course, history would validate his suspicions.

But Adams’ rejection of what he saw as utopianism wasn’t only political in nature. It was also pedagogical. He realized that he “wanted to understand history in living terms,” and felt with increasing conviction that theory—that central pillar of academia—simplified (or ignored) the real-world repercussions of social engineering. By 1980, he’d thrown his hat in with Reagan and the Republicans, but he had yet to figure out how his attitudes might find purchase in the classroom. If there were ever a time that Adams felt professionally adrift, this was it. He had been a German history scholar all his adult life, and he had no intention of leaving academia, which he says “is the only real forum for a conversation about history.” But the terms of that conversation seemed increasingly irrelevant to him. Marxism, socialism, communism, utopianism— for Adams, the -ism’s stood between the College and the truth.

“My own induction into the world of intelligence,” Adams says, “came about largely by happenstance.”

The story goes like this:

In the early 1980s, Adams was engaged as a consultant for a book club. His first assignment was reviewing a manuscript on the Richard Sorge spy ring in Tokyo. Sorge—a Soviet agent whose many exploits included the establishment of an intelligence network inside Japan in the years leading up to World War II—is famous among espionage enthusiasts, but at that point, Adams knew next to nothing about him. “At Harvard,” he says, “I knew a number of senior people who had been in the Office of Strategic Services”—the forerunner to the CIA—“But none of them talked about their own experiences, including my own thesis adviser, and intelligence was never part of the graduate curriculum.” The Sorge book opened a new door for Adams—this was material that agreed with his rewired politics. Spies decipher the hidden agendas of enemy states. That such agendas exist is not, for the conservative mind, something to protest; human history suggests that things have never been otherwise, and common sense dictates they never will be.

It occurred to Adams that espionage was an almost unknown field at the university level, and he saw an opportunity to marry his classroom practices to his now full-blown mistrust of theory. In 1985—aptly, for the American media had dubbed it the Year of the Spy—Adams premiered his now-well-known course “Diplomacy and Intelligence in Modern History.” It was an immediate hit among students—the most oversubscribed seminar at the College that fall, Adams says—and it set off a chain reaction of successes. A yearlong fellowship as a visiting scholar at Stanford’s Hoover Institution revealed to Adams just how much information on intelligence-gathering was open source. It also resulted in the publication, in 1988, of the aforementioned award-winning article (“Crisis and Resurgence: East German State Security”). A book followed soon thereafter—a translation of the memoirs of double agent Werner Stiller—and Adams became chair of the Intelligence Studies section of the International Studies Association.

Meanwhile at Sarah Lawrence, he continued to fine-tune his course, adding unorthodox elements that would bring students closer to the unseen realities of espionage. For instance, a senior CIA officer visits Adams’ class every year— not to corroborate his political viewpoints (“Most of the recent visitors have been liberals,” he says), but to provide what he calls “much-needed firsthand accounts.”

“I’m not trying to convert anyone to anything,” Adams says with a smile. “But there is no utopia. The students should try to gain an understanding of the world as it actually is.”

Adams’ political views may be anathema to many of his colleagues (he supported the Iraq War, for instance—an especially unpopular position at the College), but he credits the institution’s flexibility for his freedom to explore a new academic niche. “There’s something about the way this place works,” he says, “something that is like America itself, in its entrepreneurial spirit. If you design a course and it fails, you can go back to the drawing board and try again. At a more conventional institution, you would need the approval of various deans and department chairs to launch a novel course in the first place. There would be bureaucratic resistance.” At Sarah Lawrence, such moves are not only made possible, but are encouraged by an administration that gives its faculty a great deal of leeway.

There’s a double irony in the fact that Adams arrived at Sarah Lawrence as a liberal thinker, only to be compelled toward a more conservative ideology by what he saw as the institution’s “lazy liberalism,” then to have that liberal paradigm embrace his conservatism as proof of its curricular versatility. But as Adams’ student Frederic Richter ’10 says, “It’s nice to have a history faculty member at SLC who actually likes Churchill and isn’t afraid to talk about the atrocities committed by Communist regimes.” The rarity of Adams’ perspective makes it that much more prized by a famously curious student body.

Of course, no matter how you spin things, Adams is ideologically outnumbered. “I have my friends here,” he says, “but if I’m asked to take part in a panel discussion, it’s usually because I’m the conservative voice. I’m happy to debate two persons at a time, but not six.” He makes this statement almost jovially and without a hint of fatalism. If there’s one thing Adams is not, it’s a complainer. He doesn’t lament his own minority status, even as he jokes that he could never get the votes to be on certain committees. He very obviously loves his work. And if he’s on the sparsely populated side of the political divide, it only gives him more room to move.